It’s hard, for those who have not experienced it, to imagine the desolation of the Sahara. The great sand sea, the size of America, where only the Tuareg ride. Even to this day the vastness is daunting, but 80 years ago – during the days of French colonialism, when the sands were policed for the west by the French Foreign Legion – it was truly a bizarre and alien place.
“The Sheltering Sky” captures the starkness with beauty and elegance and a certain nostalgia for the past. The quiet mud-walled cities high and defended by the Berbers, from whence came the word ‘barbarian’, unfairly of course for they and their deep-desert cousins, the Tuareg, were riding the sand seas long before the ‘west’ came into existence. Isn’t Tifinagh, the Tamashek (Tuareg) alphabet even from 2000 B.C., said to be linked with Phoenician from the days when the Tuareg trafficked slaves, salt and gold north from the dark lands and spices and weapons south from the trading ports of the Maghreb?
I’ve always loved the Sahara and its northern fringes, sand lapping up against the sea. I’ve even been to Timbuktu, I’ve seen the ancient Sankore Place which 700 years ago hosted a university of more than 20,000 people. I’ve walked through Djenne mosque, the largest mud building in the world. I’ve toured the ancient libraries where wisdom pre-dates the modern west, translations of Aristotle jockeying for position with Islamic poetry. I’ve conversed with the Songhai Imams of Djineberger mosque, a lineage as important as royalty. And on the other side, I’ve sauntered through the Medina of Marrakesh and sat in silent contemplation at the slightly listing Mosque of the Booksellers from the days when the Almoravids and Almohads held their own Berber empire that reached all the way north into Cordoba, south to Timbuktu and east to Egypt.
“The Sheltering Sky” is a story about the Berber Maghreb, though the author consistently calls them Arabs. Perhaps because of their language, or their religion, or the fact that their kings often claim the lineage of the Prophet. It is about the oasis towns. It is about the desert and the water; the heat and the sun – it is a story about three wayward travelers from America who are seeking something exotic, to somehow find themselves in a place that is so alien that it reinforces within themselves what is theirs and theirs alone.
It is a story, also, about disease. The diseases that still plague the Maghreb, typhus and malaria and meningitis. But also about a greater disease still, that of madness – a madness that consumes, that is encouraged by the vast desolate open spaces where the djinn remind us that we are not in control. For those who have been in that area of the world, this book will resonate with you as you re-experience the loneliness. For those who have not, and travel there is hard these days as the region descends again into anarchy and the jihads that have so often rolled across the sands like waves, at least you will through this extraordinary novel experience vicariously what it must be like.